There's always plenty of exuberant enthusiasm from the CBSO Youth Orchestra and tonight, with direction from equally vibrant Edward Gardner, was no exception. A half-term week's residency clearly had not tired them out and they threw themselves into a multi-coloured programme with delicious results.

Denis Kozhukhin © Felix Broede
Denis Kozhukhin
© Felix Broede

The first half provided 20th century challenges, starting with Lutosławski 's Symphony no. 4.  For me it was full of the excitement that is best experienced through live listening, with the visuals and sense of immediacy adding to the drama. Rebelling against the traditional multi-movement form, in which he considered the interior sections "too much", Lutosławski concentrated solely on the crucial first and last parts of a two-movement symphony for the development of his ideas. Setting out to first capture the audience's interest, the composer certainly achieves this through a kind of slow-motion stillness in introducing the piece. The CBSO YO exhibited control and maturity in conjuring up a haunting atmosphere, with fine contributions from clarinet and trumpet as a melody line materialised from the sombre-textured backdrop.

An overall improvisatory feel belied the clearly total control Gardner exerted over the proceedings. At times there would be almost no movement from him, making for an all the more startling impact when he burst into action to draw out explosive entries from brass and percussion. The three accented chords from the full company at the end of the first movement provided one of those pin-drop moments that underlines the joy of live concert-going. The second movement gave us chromatic melody and colourful variations in dynamics and tempo, with the percussionists displaying everything from eerie background murmuring to bell-like punctuations and exciting climactic verve.

Prokoviev's Piano Concerto no. 1 in D flat seemed to be over in a flash. Just over a hundred years ago the composer played it as his entry to the Rubinstein Piano Prize in St Petersburg, causing something of a scandal by not choosing a classical concerto. His theory was that the adjudicators wouldn't know how well he was playing it, and the gamble paid off as he won! He may have done anyway, of course, as history tells us he was a brilliant pianist. Tonight's soloist, compatriot Denis Kozhukhin, is also no stranger to piano prizes, and his apparently effortless interpretation was a joy to listen to. His rapport with the orchestra was lovely and the balance just right. His commanding touch on the majestic opening theme was complemented by a lightness where necessary. Again textures, tempi and dynamics were multi-faceted, melancholy muted strings in a supporting role during the wistful Andante, trumpet piping up in the angular Scherzo and the whole orchestra and piano taking a collective pause before finally letting rip.

Then the audience let rip too, and a few curtain calls secured a welcome encore of Bach's Prelude in B minor arranged by Siloti. To say it showed Kozhukin's versatility would be an understatement, as the delicate spread chords in the left hand and gentle melody in the right were a world away from the fireworks we'd just witnessed. 

The orchestra clearly enjoyed immersing themselves in Mahler's Symphony no. 1 in D major.  The work appeared under various titles in its early days, from a five-movement symphonic poem to "Titan – a tone poem in the form a symphony", but Mahler later did away with these. There remains an implied dramatic structure based on Mahler's own poems Songs of a Wayfarer, with the music describing the hero's journey from unrequited love via a pastoral setting towards the finality, yet triumph, of death. The band was evidently at home with Mahler's brilliant orchestration and confidently tackled the subtleties and nuances that brought the landscape and journey to life. The minor-key Frère Jacques theme of the funeral march was particularly effective, with the chance for individual young musicians to shine, from menacing double-bass onwards. The final "triumphal" pages were exactly that, with upstanding brass giving it their all. Then it was time to get the whole crew on their feet for well-earned enthusiastic applause.